Innocent Baptist Christian Remains Imprisoned in Uzbekistan
A Special Report by ICC
03/21/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Two years after an Uzbek Baptist Christian was sentenced to 10 years in prison for drug trafficking, which his church says is a false charge, Uzbekistan shows no signs of relenting on its ongoing persecution of Christians.
In March 2010, Tohar Haydarov was sentenced to 10 years in prison for selling large quantities of narcotics or psychotropic substances. Seven weeks earlier, he was arrested, interrogated for hours and pressured to recant his faith. But he stayed true to his convictions. The police then told him they had found a matchbox in his pocket, containing drugs. He was arrested and then sentenced in a swift judicial move, which has left the Church confused and frustrated.
The Baptist Church insists that the charges were completely fabricated, stating that he is “a man with a pure conscience and an honest Christian.” Mushfig Bayram, writing for Forum 18 News, says: “An initial appeal against the sentence was rejected in April, despite numerous violations of legal procedure in the original trial.” Even his neighbors, convinced of his innocence, gave written statements to the authorities to defend his case.
But none of the objections prevailed, and Haydarov was sentenced to prison as a drug trafficker, where he has now served two years of his sentence. In April 2012, a judge stood by the court’s ruling, saying: “The court correctly stated the criminal act of Tohar Haydarov, and the punishment was given in proportion to the act, taking into account the public danger of the act.”
Neither the Church nor the international community is convinced by the legality of the trial or by the length of the sentence. As Corey Bailey, ICC’s Regional Manager for Central Asia said, “The circumstances surrounding Haydarov’s arrest and subsequent 10-year sentence are suspect at best and a typical form of Christian persecution for the region. We call for Tohar’s immediate release.”
The Church in Uzbekistan believes that Haydarov’s arrest, imprisonment and sentencing were a punishment for his Christian faith and retaliation to the fact that the Council of Baptist Churches, of which he was a new member, refuses to seek state registration for its religious activity.
After his trial, according to Forum 18 News, Haydarov was moved to a labor camp near Qarshi, 250 miles from his hometown, where fellow Baptists have been able to visit him twice. Each time, they were given 40 minutes to talk over the phone through a glass wall. Around twenty such phone conversations were going on at the same time, and they had to shout to hear each other. They reported that his health was normal and he is hoping for justice to prevail.
Prison authorities recently showed Haydarov some of the many letters sent to him since his imprisonment, but he is not allowed to read them, because “there are too many citations from the Bible in them,” The Voice of the Martyrs says.
Not an Isolated Case
Uzbekistan has already sentenced several people to prison for religious reasons. A Pentecostal pastor, Dmitry Shestakov, is serving a sentence of four years in prison for “illegal religious activities.” For the same reason, three people from Jehovah’s Witnesses – Abdubannob Ahmedov, Sergei Ivanov and Olim Turaev – have been sentenced to between three and a half and four years in prison.
According to Asia News, in September 2009, special representatives of the United Nations accused Tashkent of having tortured two brothers, Nigmat and Sobit Zufarov in prison for practicing their faith, subjecting them to beatings, threats, restrictions and isolation. The report showed several bruises and stated that he was fed by force after six days. Uzbekistan has denied any use of torture.
Haydarov is one among many prisoners of conscience in Uzbekistan, where the authorities feel free to manufacture charges, flout the due legal process and imprison Christians, disregarding the legal, ethical and moral obligations of the state to protect the rights of its own citizens. For incidents of this nature, Uzbekistan was named as one of 14 Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, emphasizing that the government has systematically and egregiously violated freedom of religion or belief.
Authoritarian nations, like Uzbekistan, are notorious for employing registration laws to restrict and control religious activity in the country. According to these laws, all religious organizations and activity must be authorized by the state. But the laws are often used to provide legal grounds for the persecution of religious minorities, particularly Christians. They are often poorly worded and vulnerable to manipulation, so that even a family gathering to pray before a meal can be interpreted to be an “illegal religious activity.”
As Uzbekistan remains unmoved by its violations of religious freedom, one of the possible responses to its apathy is for its economic partners – particularly the OSCE and the EU – to link their relationships with the country to their human rights record. Neither the moral nor the legal factors seem to motivate the leadership to improve the state of religious freedom in the country. Perhaps economic consequences could prove to be a more effective deterrent against the rampant abuses of civil and religious freedom in Uzbekistan. In the meantime, an innocent man lies in prison for his faith, waiting for justice to be served.